Throndson questions whether Workman would have a conflict
When the Rochester School Board meets in special session Tuesday to re-vote the office of chairperson, the primary purpose will be to satisfy the requirements of open meeting law.
There shouldn't be any surprises.
Last Tuesday's vote resulted in the election of board member Julie Workman as chairwoman for this year, defeating Terry Throndson in a 4-3 vote. But because the board used a secret, paper ballot to determine the winner, those results are now being treated as invalid by the district.
Tuesday's re-vote, then, should be no different than last week's.
Workman, 60, is in her second year as a board member and worked as an orchestra teacher for the Rochester district for 36 years before retiring two years ago. For the past year, she has served as vice chairwoman, a role that helps the No. 2 person learn the ropes and prepare for becoming chairperson when the incumbent's term expires.
But last Tuesday, Throndson sought to upset that succession plan. Because there was no debate following the nomination of candidates, however, it wasn't clear what motivated Throndson to seek the chairmanship until an interview after Tuesday's vote.
Throndson argues that a Workman chairmanship makes her vulnerable to a conflict of interest — or at the least accusations of a conflict — because she was a district employee for more than three decades.
Her assumption as the board's leader would also come at a delicate time for the district as it negotiates a two-year contract with teachers.
Throndson, a Rochester businessman, said he doesn't believe that Workman would do the bidding of the teachers union, but that it would create perception problems for the board.
"The perspective from the community is that we have a retired teacher in charge of a board," Throndson said. "The largest employee group are teachers. I'm in no way saying that Julie is going to do anything. I tried telling her, 'Here's the perception.' And I don't think it's a good one."
At the least, Throndson said, Workman is putting herself in a no-win position with teachers. If contract negotiations don't turn out as teachers had hoped, Workman risks getting an unpopular response from teachers.
"I don't want Julie to get hurt," Throndson said. "I never have understood why past principals and teachers are on school board. To me, that's just one heck of a conflict of interest."
Workman rejects the idea that a retired teacher serving as chairperson will benefit teachers in negotiations. Even as chairwoman, she points out, she represents only a single vote.
"Every board member has one vote. If it were the perception that I was a pawn of the union, I would have to have three other board members agree with me," she said.
Workman adds that in the last election, she won the votes of 20,000 residents "for whom my career as a teacher was not an impediment."
The idea that a chairperson has the power to sway the board one way or the other also underscores a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of chairperson, which Workman described as a kind of "traffic cop" whose job is to run an orderly meeting.
Those responsibilities include weekly meetings with the superintendent and setting the agenda, the creation of which can be influenced by the other six members who can request an item to be placed on it.
As for the risk that she might become unpopular with district employees because of her decisions, Workman said it comes with the job.
"If a member of the public wants to blast me online or in a letter to the editor or anything else, fine," Workman said. "I'm a public official. That's what happens when you're elected. You've got to have fairly thick skin."